As the CIA wages a covert proxy war against the Soviet 40th Army, the Mujahideen are showered with billions of dollars and cutting-edge weaponry. An old animosity between two prominent Mujahideen commanders – Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - turns into a bitter, deadly rivalry. Meanwhile, Soviet reformers led by Mikhail Gorbachev attempt to extricate the USSR from Afghanistan with a shred of dignity intact. After the Soviet withdrawal, the world turns it back on Afghanistan as a civil war rages between the Mujahideen factions – and the Taliban emerges.
As the CIA wages a covert proxy war against the Soviet 40th Army, the Mujahideen are showered with billions of dollars and cutting-edge weaponry. An old animosity between two prominent Mujahideen commanders – Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - turns into a bitter, deadly rivalry. Meanwhile, Soviet reformers led by Mikhail Gorbachev attempt to extricate the USSR from Afghanistan with a shred of dignity intact. After the Soviet withdrawal, the world turns it back on Afghanistan as a civil war rages between the Mujahideen factions – and the Taliban emerges.
Ahmadi-Miller, Enjeela. The Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan. 2019.
Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys. 1989.
Ansari, Mir Tamim. Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan. 2012.
Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. 2010.
Borovik, Artyom. The Hidden War. 1990.
Braithewaite, Rodric. Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. 2011.
Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to 2001. 2004.
Dobbs, Michael. Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. 1997.
Feifer, Gregory. The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. 2009.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-89. 2012.
Galeotti, Mark. Storm-333: KGB and Spetsnaz Seize Kabul. 2021.
Gall, Sandy. Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmed Shah Massoud. 2021.
Grad, Marcela. Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader. 2009.
Goodwin, Jan. Caught in the Crossfire. 1987.
Grau, Lester W. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics In Afghanistan. 1996.
Hosdon, Peregrine. Under a Sickle Moon: A Journey Through Afghanistan. 1986.
Kalinovsky, Artemy. A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. 2011.
Kaplan, Robert D. Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 2001.
Rosen, Ethan. The Bear, The Dragon, & the AK-47. 2017.
Tanner, Stephen. Afghanistan: A Military History of Afghanistan from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban. 2009.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to Part 3 of a multi-part series on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which took place from 1979-1989. It goes without saying, that the ideal way to listen to this series – or any series – is in order. So if you haven’t listened to Part 1 and 2 yet, please go do that. That said, I realize it’s been a few weeks since the last episode dropped, so let’s refresh our memories on what we’ve covered thus far.
In Part 1, we talked about how the Soviets got involved in Afghanistan in the first place. We discussed how the dynamics of the Cold War made Afghanistan a hotspot on the geopolitical chessboard. We learned about the Afghan Communists who took over the government in 1978, and how the reforms they tried to implement absolutely infuriated the country’s conservative Muslim majority. Which in turn, prompted the rise of a guerilla insurgency – the Mujahideen. Things got so bad, so fast, that the Soviet Union felt it had to invade to stabilize the situation on its Southern border.
In Part 2, we spent the majority of our time on the ground in Afghanistan, trying to understand what the war was like for the people who experienced it firsthand. The civilian refugees. The Soviet soldiers in the 40thArmy. The conscripts. The Mujahideen. All that good stuff.
Part 2 was the “Journalist Episode” for lack of a better label. If you’ll recall, we spent a lot of time with Jan Goodwin, the Executive Editor of Ladies Home Journal who snuck into Afghanistan to travel with the Mujahideen guerillas and report on the war. Through Jan’s eyes, we came to understand the complex mix of motivations and feelings that drove the Mujahideen in their jihad against the Russians. We also spent a little time with the Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik, who catalogued a huge range of intensely traumatic experiences suffered by the 40th Army during their stay in Afghanistan. And finally, we had a brief but harrowing discussion of the war crimes that took place in Afghanistan, and how each side engaged in an escalating cycle of brutality.
In Part 3, we’re going to be balancing a handful of distinct plot threads that will kind of weave and mingle together over the course of the episode. The broad focus of today’s episode will be the American role in the war, the Soviet withdrawal, and factional struggles that start to develop within Mujahideen.
In the first thread, we’re gonna be looking at the CIA, and how they came to be involved in supplying money and weapons to the Mujahideen.
The second thread will examine the big change that starts to happen in Soviet thinking in 1985 with the entrance of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev onto the scene, which led to the 40th Army’s eventual withdrawal in 1989.
And in the third, and I would say most important thread, we’ll follow a decades-long rivalry between two prominent Mujahideen commanders – Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A feud that would eventually become an all-out civil war.
All of these individual narratives are intimately related, of course, and I’m excited to show you how everything connects. This is one of those stories that just expands and expands the more you tell it, but I’ve tried to untangle this ball of yarn in the most entertaining way possible. This is easily one of the most challenging topics I’ve ever done – the scope and implications of the story are just so massive; and I’m sure not all of my interpretations or commentary will be seen as perfect, but I hope you’ve been enjoying the ride as much as I have.
So with all that said, let’s jump into it.
Welcome to Ghosts in the Mountains: The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Part 3
In the fall of 1986, a highly classified video tape was delivered to the White House.
The contents of this video tape had been recorded thousands of miles away, in Afghanistan. But it had traveled across mountains, over rivers, on planes, trains and automobiles to arrive at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This videotape made its way through multiple concentric security perimeters, eventually arriving at the personal screening room of the President of the United States. A short time later, President Ronald Reagan entered the room, flanked by a handful of advisors, aides, and representatives from the CIA.
At 75 years old, Ronald Reagan was no stranger to a theater. He absolutely loved movies. Capital L “loved” them. As a much younger man in Hollywood, he had starred in more than a few. With his earnest, intoxicating grin and wavy brown hair, Reagan seemed made for the silver screen.
But today, he was in the audience.
The President was a lifelong cinephile, and he had brought that passion with him to the White House after being sworn into office in January of 1981. Reagan and his wife Nancy had watched all kinds of movies in Presidential screening rooms, typically at the peaceful retreat of Camp David.
Ronald Reagan may have been a lot of things, but he wasn’t a film snob. He watched everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, to Crocodile Dundee, The Karate Kid (1 &2), and Tootsie. But today, in the White House, Reagan was watching a very, very special movie. The lights went down. The screen lit up, and the tape rolled.
The footage was grainy. Shaky. A far cry from the polished Hollywood fare that Reagan normally watched. The President and his entourage strained their eyes to make out the details of the scratchy video footage.
The video showed a handful of men. Afghan men. Clearly Mujahideen freedom fighters. They were standing on top of a high hill, divided into three teams of three men each. One man from each team was holding a long, heavy tube. Reagan and his staff recognized the weapon immediately. It was the jewel in the crown of American weapons technology. The Stinger surface-to-air missile launcher.
In the video, the muffled roar of Soviet helicopters could be heard. A small group of gunships were returning to the Soviet-controlled airport in Jalalabad. But these were not just any ‘ol helicopters. These were arguably the most hated weapon of war in the Soviet Union’s arsenal. The one the Mujahideen feared above all others. The HIND M-24 attack helicopter.
Writer Peregrine Hodson describes the HIND M-24’s mere silhouette as: “sinister, like a swollen metallic insect, heavy with malevolent intent.”
Journalist Jan Goodwin helpfully elaborates: “The Soviet HIND MI-24 helicopter is one of the most lethal war machines in existence. It carries 128 rockets, 4 napalm or high-explosive bombs, and laser-sighted cannons that can fire one thousand rounds per minute; It is capable of annihilating a village in seconds.”
Their hands must have been shaking, but when the helicopters came into range, the Mujahideen Stinger missile teams sprang into action. Historian Michael Dobbs describes what happened next:
With a flick of his left thumb, each marksman punched a button that instructed the missile’s electronic brain to sense the infrared heat being emitted from the helicopter engines. There was a series of loud pinging sounds, the signal that the missiles had locked on to their targets. Ghaffar shouted, “Fire,” and the marksmen pulled the triggers. Ecstatic chants of Allah o Akbar (God is great) rose into the air as the missiles whooshed into the sky at a speed of more than twelve hundred miles per hour. Seconds later two of the helicopters burst into flames and plummeted to the ground. There was a wild scramble as the firing parties reloaded. Two more missiles were fired, downing another helicopter.
One. Two. Three helicopter gunships down in less than a minute. The Mujahideen could barely contain their excitement. According to the CIA Station Chief in Pakistan, Milton Bearden, the video tape looked: “like some kid at a football game. Everybody is jumping up and down – and seeing the earth go back and forth.”
Inside the White House screening room, the mood was equally jubilant. It’s hard to know for sure if Ronald Reagan grinned his trademark grin at the sight of that footage, but if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put my money against it.
The events depicted in the footage had taken place on September 25th, 1986. And they were the culmination of a years-long, multi-billion-dollar covert operation that had begun the very second Soviet tanks had crossed the border to invade Afghanistan in December of 1979. Before even.
Let’s back up a bit.
There’s a German word that accurately describes how the American intelligence community felt in the early 1980s, as the Soviet Union was sucked deeper and deeper into an unwinnable, lacerating war in Afghanistan. Odds are, you’ve heard this word before: Schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude literally means “harm-joy”, and it describes the distinct pleasure you get from watching someone you don’t like get their theirs. When someone you hate gets what’s coming to them. When you bask in it, jettisoning all feelings of empathy to just bathe in the exquisite joy of watching an enemy suffer.
By the closing days of the Cold War, the Americans knew all about suffering. And they were salivating to see the Russians suffer in turn.
When the Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, almost every stratum of American society was still reeling from the disaster that had been the Vietnam War.
It had only been six years since the American military had finally thrown in the towel and slunk back home in 1973. To add insult to injury, just two years later in 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Communist army. And with that, America’s Cold War adventure in Southeast Asia was more-or-less officially over. What had begun as an optimistic, Commie-killing crusade …ended in a panicked, disorganized rout. The price tag for it all? A staggering $120 billion in taxpayer dollars.
The outcome of the Vietnam War was humiliating for the Americans. But the butcher’s bill went far beyond a handful of bruised egos in the Pentagon. 58,000 American soldiers were dead. Anyone who doubted that figure just had to take a quick stroll down to the colossal V-shaped memorial and read all the names etched into its black, glassy exterior.
However, the price of the Vietnam War could be measured in much more than just blood and treasure. The war had shredded America’s self-image as the righteous, invincible superpower. It had exacerbated racial and generational tensions. Weakened the economy. Destroyed at least one Presidency. And permanently eroded the American public’s trust in its own government. By 1979, the sunny skies and starry eyes of the 50s and early 60s seemed as distant as a half-remembered dream.
And who was to blame for it all?
Well, for many American politicians and intelligence officers, Soviet Russia was the big, bad, boogeyman behind the catastrophe. The USSR had no small part in funding, arming, and training the North Vietnamese. Plenty of GIs from America had been killed by guerillas from Hanoi carrying Kalashnikovs made in Russia. In short, Soviet fingerprints were all over the embarrassing defeat in Vietnam.
And when the USSR waded into its own ill-advised third-world boondoggle, the glint of revenge twinkled in American eyes. It was time for a little payback. To make Russian boys bleed in the desert, just like American boys had bled in the jungle. As one historian writes, Afghanistan was: “an opportunity to make the Soviets suffer at little cost and no risk to American lives.”
President Jimmy Carter agreed, as he wrote in a secret order: “Our ultimate goal is the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Even if this is not attainable, we should make Soviet involvement as costly as possible.”
From their headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the Central Intelligence Agency – the CIA – had been monitoring the situation in Afghanistan very closely. As early as 1978 they’d made tentative contact with the first Mujahideen guerillas who had risen up against Hafizullah’s Amin’s doomed regime.
And now that the Russian army itself was fully committed in Afghanistan, the CIA was determined to keepthem fully committed. For as long as humanly, diplomatically, and militarily possible. CIA Director William Casey summed up the general thrust of the Agency’s plan:
Here’s the beauty of the Afghan operation. Usually, it looks like the big bad Americans are beating up on the natives. Afghanistan is just the reverse. The Russians are beating up on the little guys. We don’t make it our war. The mujahedin have all the motivation they need. All we have to do is give them help, only more of it.”
For the CIA, the Mujahideen were a means to an end. Initially, the CIA didn’t really care about what the guerillas believed, what they wanted, or what their grand plans were. From Langley’s perspective, these medieval extremists were just convenient Cold War cannon fodder. Little more than disembodied, disposable fingers pulling a trigger. As Steve Coll writes: “For many in the CIA, the Afghan jihad was about killing Soviets, first and last.”
So - the CIA knew what it wanted to do. But figuring out *how* to do it, was a slightly more complicated matter. In 1980, the CIA could not just fly a C-17 into Afghanistan and drop off pallets of money & weapons to the Mujahideen directly.
They were constrained by the diplomatic etiquette of the Cold War. If push came to shove, the CIA had to be able to prove, or at least convincingly claim, that the American taxpayer was not funding Mujahideen freedom fighters. They needed plausible deniability.
And how do you get plausible deniability? Well, you need a middle man. You need an intermediary to essentially launder that money, take possession of those weapons, and redistribute it all to the Mujahideen directly. American intelligence officers absolutely could not be caught handing American-flag stamped crates of American-made weapons to the Afghan jihadists. That would have been a grievous breach of Cold War diplomacy; A faux-pas with the explosive potential to escalate tensions even further between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.
It was all Kabuki theatre, course. By the mid-80s, it was an open secret that American money was flowing to Afghan freedom fighters. As one intelligence officer said, it was “the most overt covert operation in history.” But still, the Cold War Kabuki had to be played out.
And thankfully, the CIA had a perfect middle man in mind: Pakistan.
Located directly across the southeast border of Afghanistan, the nation of Pakistan checked all the CIA’s boxes as the perfect slipstream to funnel money to the Mujahideen. The Pakistanis, after all, were no friends of the Soviets; and they had been providing safe haven to Mujahideen rebel groups for years. Many Pakistanis were ethnically Pashtun, just like large segments of the Afghan population. There was a deep kinship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as a result, they had opened their arms to the tidal wave of refugees fleeing the brutality of the Red Army.
Pakistan may have held the Americans in contempt, but they hated the Soviets more. The feeling was mutual in Washington DC. And so, an unlikely bargain was struck between America and Pakistan to arm the Mujahideen and inflict maximum pain on the 40th Army.
It was decided that the money would flow to the freedom fighters through Pakistan’s version of the CIA, the Inter-Services Intelligence, more commonly known as the ISI. But as Pakistani secret agents opened their wallets to receive fat stacks from their American collaborators, the initial payments were…. unimpressive.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War.” The peanut-farmer-turned-President offered Pakistan’s government a lump sum of $400 million dollars to help in the struggle against the Soviets. Carter may have felt the offer was generous, but the Pakistanis thought it was pitiful and patronizing, and they promptly rebuffed the cash. Pakistan’s president, the mustachioed strongman Zia-ul-Huq, even went so far as to throw shade at Carter himself, calling the $400 million offer “peanuts”.
But by January of 1981, it didn’t matter. Jimmy Carter was old news. The White House had a brand-new occupant. President Ronald Reagan.
Now depending on who you are, the very mention of Ronald Reagan will either make your skin crawl or your heart swell, but we’re not here to analyze the man’s legacy. That’s too controversial even for this show. However, Reagan is immensely important within the context of the Soviet-Afghan War.
In his time as President, Jimmy Carter had been, perhaps unfairly, accused of being squeamish and weak in the face of Soviet aggression. Reagan however, could never be accused of being timid in his dealings with the USSR. As Michael Dobbs writes:
Reagan had a visceral dislike of Communists that went back to his days as a trade union activist in Hollywood after the Second World War and his suspicion that the Reds were attempting to take over the American movie industry. At his first presidential news conference he had spoken of Soviet leaders as if they were soulless automatons, willing to “commit any crime, to lie, and to cheat”
To Reagan and others like him, the USSR was a sinister force in global politics. One that needed to be defeated. According to Steve Coll: “They spoke not in the moderating language of détente, but in a religious vocabulary of good and evil.”
As a result, Reagan threw himself energetically into the larger goal of destabilizing Soviet influence across the Third World, from Nicaragua to Cambodia to Angola. Anywhere the Soviets had fingers in the pie, the Reagan administration wanted to pry them out. And right at the top of the list, was Afghanistan. As historian Artemy Kalinovsky elaborates: “Reagan and many members of Congress saw support for the war in almost messianic terms, a sacred duty to help God-fearing freedom fighters to defeat arrogant, atheist oppressors.
To the delight of America’s clandestine services, Reagan made it clear that price was no object. As he told the Defense Department: “Defense is not a budget item, spend what you need.”
With the purse strings loosened, the CIA could really flex its financial muscles. But there was no plan, no grand strategy, no far-reaching goal. The immediate aim was to kill Soviet soldiers, end of story. As the CIA station chief in Islamabad understood his orders at the time:
“You’re a young man; here’s your bag of money, go raise hell. Don’t fuck it up, just go out there and kill Soviets, and take care of the Pakistanis and make them do whatever you need to make them do.”
But the Americans weren’t the only ones with money to burn in Afghanistan. As I mentioned at the tail end of Part 2, the Soviets had enemies all over the world. Nations who wanted to see them fail in Afghanistan, and were prepared to spend cash to make it happen. As historian Michael Dobbs writes:
In the space of a few months a remarkable anti-Soviet coalition had taken shape. It spanned the entire ideological spectrum: American capitalists and Chinese Communists, conservative Saudi princes and Iranian Islamic fundamentalists, Pakistani generals and European peaceniks. The only people left in Moscow’s camp were diehard Kremlin clients.
Saudi Arabia was especially keen on funding the Mujahideen. Flush with tens of billions in oil money, they pledged to match America’s contributions dollar for dollar. Even Israel, infamous for its prickly suspicion of pretty much everyone, eventually offered up its stockpile of captured Russian weapons to the Americans for transport to Pakistan. In short, it was open season on the Soviets, and everyone was getting along splendidly. One CIA officer commented gleefully on the contradictory coalition: “Can it possibly be any better than buying bullets from the Chinese to use to shoot Russians?”
But as the money flowed and the weapons crates began to stack up, Pakistan expressed some nervousness. Too much cash and too much heat might invite Soviet intervention in Pakistan itself. What happened if the 40thArmy decided to cauterize the flow of supplies to the Mujahideen by moving into Pakistani territory? As Pakistan’s President Zia fretted: “The water in Afghanistan must boil at the right temperature”.
But the CIA wasn’t worried. The Russians wouldn’t dare risk an escalation of the conflict by extending the war into the safe harbor of Pakistan. As one operative put it: “The fuckers haven’t got the balls, they aren’t going to do it. “It is not going to happen, boys and girls, so don’t worry about it.”
Year after year, the CIA’s Afghan budget ballooned. And the weapons got more and more sophisticated. Bolt action rifles became AK-47s, AK-47s became RPGs, RPGs became anti-aircraft guns, anti-aircraft guns became night vision goggles that Mujahideen fighters pulled down over their wool caps and turbans. The CIA shipped mortars from China, mules from Texas; they even printed thousands of copies of the Quran for distribution to the Mujahideen in the hope that it would further stoke their religious fervor.
With every dead Russian, Vietnam was being avenged. But in the arms-dealing orgy, the CIA had lost sight of one crucial factor. After the guns and cash were received by the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, it disappeared behind a veil of secrecy. The ISI had sole discretion over which Mujahideen factions received the most funding, and which ones didn’t. In its feverish lust (hard-on?) for Soviet blood, the CIA had relinquished control over exactly which pockets became swollen with American cash. And slowly but surely, a pecking order began to emerge among the Mujahideen.
Unfortunately for us, and arguably the world, Pakistan just happened to favor the most extreme, the most zealous, the most ruthless of the Mujahideen leaders. The far end of the spectrum; fundamentalist jihadists who hated Americans just as much as they hated Russians.
The American government didn’t know it yet. But they were arming their own assassins.
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In the summer of 1983, three years before those stinger missiles corkscrewed into the sky and brought down the first Soviet gunships, a young Russian soldier named Nikolai Bystrov went out on patrol with two of his buddies.
Nicolai and his friends weren’t looking for the mujahideen. They were looking for a decent meal. The fact was, the grub in the 40th Army had always been pretty bad – mostly rancid canned meat or rock-hard bread. So that day, Nicolai and the boys were out looking for something a little more real. A little more nourishing.
They walked about a mile into the countryside to a local village. There, they traded what they could for some food made by the villagers. Maybe a hunk of freshly cooked meat or a bowl of rice. But as they went to leave, one of the villagers offered Nicolai and his friends a warning.
A band of Mujahideen had set a trap for them on the way home. And they should take a different route, he said. Nicolai and his friends thanked the man for his advice and took the alternate way home. But it was a trick. Soon after, the hills erupted in gunfire and Mujahideen swooped down on the three men from every direction. In a matter of seconds, Nicolai was wounded and his two friends were dead.
A quick walk down the road for a bite to eat had turned into a terrifying new reality for Nicolai. He was now a POW of the Mujahideen. In the first few days, Nicolai tried to escape twice. And all he got for his efforts was a few broken ribs and a cracked jaw. The guerillas marched him deeper and deeper into the mountains, to a place called the Panjshir Valley.
The Panjshir Valley is one of the most beautiful places in Afghanistan. Surrounded on all sides by towering, snow-capped mountains, the Panjshir is a narrow sliver of green; an all-but-impregnable oasis of farms, river lands, and green fields. Even through the pain in his ribs, Nicolai must have found it beautiful. As author Roger L Plunk said in an interview:
“Did you see The Lord of the Rings? There is a place called the Shire, and the Shire is a peaceful place and people go about their lives. And the Panjshir is like the Shire: It is very quaint, the little houses are beautiful, and there is a river that flows through it, surrounded by mountains and valleys.”
Eventually the Mujahideen hauled their Russian prisoner to a small house deep in the valley. And that is when Nicolai met the man who would change the course of his life.
This man was the commander of the Mujahideen in the Panjshir Valley. He was the boss. The big man. And to Nicolai’s surprise, in an unusual display of warmth and mutual respect, this Afghan man reached out and shook his hand. He said his name was Ahmed Shah Massoud.
By now, you guys know the drill. If there’s an important name that you really need to remember, I’ll let you know. And this is one of them. Ahmed Shah Massoud is going to be a pivotal character in this story moving forward. That’s A-H-M-E-D Ahmed, S-H-A-H Shah, M-A-S-S-O-U-D, Massoud. But for the sake of simplicity, from here on out, we’ll mostly just refer to him as Massoud.
Nicolai, like every Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, knew the name Ahmed Shah Massoud. The 40th Army had been trying to find and kill Massoud for years. He was only 30 years old in 1983, barely out of his twenties, but Massoud was already a legend amongst the Mujahideen. The closest historical comparison would be like an Afghan Che Guevara. And no matter how many tanks and helicopters and airstrikes the Soviets threw at the Panjshir Valley, they were unable to break Massoud’s hold over it. To the Russians, Massoud was the ultimate ghost; an unkillable, unbeatable boogeyman. But yet here he was, shaking Nicolai’s hand. The young Russian soldier looked his captor up and down and didn’t see a monster at all. He saw, as writer Steve Coll describes:
“A sinewy man with a wispy beard and penetrating dark eyes. He was a tall man, but not physically imposing. He was quiet and formal, yet he radiated intensity. He was a deliberate, cogent speaker, clear and forceful, never loud or demonstrative.”
Massoud was also a very handsome man. He had this narrow, aquiline nose and smile lines that could suddenly break into a dashing white grin. He spoke fluent French, much to the delight of Western journalists. In another life, he could’ve been a movie star. But in this life, he was a freedom fighter operating out of a mud house in the mountains.
Shortly after Massoud shook Nicolai’s hand, the young Soviet soldier was taken away and detained. He was after all, still a prisoner of war. For six months, Nicolai was a captive of the Mujahideen, kept in a variety of conditions, both good and bad, with other Soviet prisoners. But then, in the winter of 1984, Massoud came to him again. As Rodric Braithwaite writes:
“Massoud offered them a choice. They could be exchanged for mujahedin prisoners in the hands of the Russians; or they could go abroad to Pakistan and on to Switzerland, Canada, or America.”
Massoud was letting them go. The majority of Soviet POWs took the deal and ran. But Nicolai and one other chose to stay. He didn’t have anything to go back to in the Soviet Union, much less any of those other countries. So he stayed with Massoud’s mujahideen. And one day, on the top of a mountain pass, he was given a rifle, a flak jacket, and a job offer. Massoud told him that if wanted to, he could serve as one of his personal bodyguards. As one historian wrote, Nicolai: “could not understand why he was being shown so much trust. He checked the weapon: it was in full working order, and there was a full supply of ammunition. He could have killed Massoud and the rest of the bodyguard, and taken himself off. But he decided that, since Massoud had trusted him, he should stick with him.”
A couple years later, Nicolai married an Afghan woman from Massoud’s tribe. As it turned out, a short walk for a decent lunch had led Nicolai to a new life and a new family. He served as Massoud’s bodyguard for the next 11 years. And in that period of time, Massoud might have told him some things about his own past. He might have told him how and why and when he’d joined the jihad to begin with.
Ahmed Shah Massoud had been born in the Panjshir Valley in 1953, long before Communism had come to Afghanistan. Most people in the Panjshir were illiterate, but Massoud’s parents were not. And they instilled in their son a voracious appetite for books, history, poetry, mathematics, chemistry and classical literature. Massoud was a big reader, but the book he loved the most was the Quran.
At an early age, Massoud was religious in the way that most young people are religious. As kind of a reflexive obligation to their parents and tradition – you go to church, because your Mom and Dad want you to. But Massoud grew into it. He found meaning and beauty and value in the holy book and its accompanying Hadith. By the time he was a young man, Massoud was a devout and devoted Sunni Muslim.
One persistent theme in the Quran that undoubtedly appealed to Massoud is the idea of defending the weak. Protecting people who have neither the strength nor the means to protect themselves. Even as a kid, Massoud’s moral compass was already firmly defined. As journalist Sandy Gall writes:
On the school bus that took pupils home from the lycée (that’s the the name of the French academy Massoud attended in Kabul), three big louts were bullying a frail, much younger boy. At the stop, the young Massoud pushed his satchel of books into a friend’s hands and, with three single punches – separate, precise, each delivered straight to the solar plexus like bolts from a crossbow – laid the three bullies out cold on the pavement.
Massoud could clearly hold his own in a fight; but he was a bright and curious kid, and when he was about 20 years old, he went where bright and curious kids tend to go. He went to college. In the early 1970s, Massoud enrolled in the engineering program at the recently-created Kabul University. And as he stepped onto its campus with his books and his pencils, he entered a fast-paced and exciting new intellectual ecosystem. As Chris Sands writes:
For the first time in the nation’s history, young people from across the country could easily mix with each other, sharing ideas and finding out about life beyond their own villages and towns.
Massoud threw himself into his studies, with dreams of someday becoming an engineer or an architect. As journalist Sandy Gall writes about Massoud: “His friends remember him as charming, intense, secretive, mature for his age, serious.” He was so good at mathematics, that he set up a tutoring service for fellow students in his first year at Kabul U. But as anyone who’s been to college will tell you, you can’t study *all* the time, and before long Massoud found himself drawn into other, extracurricular activities. One of these, was a student organization called the Muslim Youth.
The Muslim Youth was a reaction to the rising tide of Communism and liberalization in urban Afghan society. As the skirts got shorter and the Qurans got dustier, many students with more traditional, conservative backgrounds worried that their country was changing way too much, way too fast. The devout Massoud was attracted to this perspective. He had always distrusted atheist, Soviet-style Communism, and now many of his fellow students were advocating for it here in Afghanistan. He didn’t like that, and so he found a group of like-minded students who shared his anti-Communist views. The Muslim Youth. As Massoud sat listening in their meetings, he began to hear what they were really about.
The Muslim Youth was an Islamist organization. Now we have to hit PAUSE right here for a quick note about terminology. Islamism is not a synonym for Islam, Muslim, or Islamic. Islamism is, basically, the belief that the Quran should be used as a blueprint for governance. In other words, the exact opposite of “separation of church and state”. For Islamists, the church is the state. Or at least should be. God’s laws supersede man’s laws, and the ideal society uses them as a basis for all government – end of story. As Chris Sands writes, The Muslim Youth: “regarded all nation states as man-made impositions against God’s will.”
Massoud was much more of a moderate. He didn’t like Communists, he didn’t like atheists, but he believed there was room for compromise with people on the opposite end of the political spectrum. But many students in the Muslim Youth believed there was no room for compromise. Absolutely zero. They were ultra-radical, ultra-conservative, and ultra-extreme, dedicated to a by-the-letter interpretation of Quranic law. And it was at these meetings, that the young Ahmed Shah Massoud first met the man who fully embodied this extremism. A man who would eventually become his most hated, most bitter, lifelong enemy.
That man’s name was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
This is the other big name I’m going to need you to remember and internalize. Now I totally recognize that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is not a string of syllables that most people in the West encounter on a daily basis. And that’s fair, it’s a Pashtun name. Gulbuddin -G-U-L-B-U-D-D-IN, Hekmatyar H-E-K-M-A-T-Y-A-R.
In many ways, Hekmatyar was a warped mirror image of Massoud. Like Massoud, Hekmatyar was incredibly intelligent. Incredibly well read. He was handsome and articulate and charismatic. He came from a wealthy family with a bone-deep belief in Islam. His first name, Gulbuddin, literally means “flower of religion”. And just to give you a mental image of this guy, the classic look for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a very regal, serious-looking man. He wore a long, thick black beard. And he wrapped his head in an airtight, very distinctive jet-black turban. Some old CIA guys occasionally refer to him as “the dark prince”. And actually, if you squint he actually looks like a dead ringer for the actor John Turturro. Like, if I was casting a movie about Hekmatyar, Turturro would be *the guy*. But anyway.
Hekmatyar’s faith was much different from Massoud’s. It was rigid, radical, and deeply averse to compromise. Hekmatyar’s fundamentalism had been triggered when he was a teenager, and he remembered the exact moment it had happened. He’d been in tenth grade and had gotten into an argument with another student. This other student was a Communist, and this kid taunted Hekmatyar, saying, If God is real, prove it. According to writer Chris Sands:
Religious belief was taken for granted in Afghanistan and Hekmatyar was stunned that anyone could be so crass. The two nearly came to blows until other students intervened. ‘After that moment I made a decision to struggle,’ Hekmatyar recalled. The transformation he described was akin to an epiphany, a sudden realization that he should strive for social change ‘in an Islamic framework,’ causing ‘the collapse of the regime.”
By the time he enrolled in Kabul University in 1969 at the age of 20, Hekmatyar was fully committed to militant, fundamentalist Islam. In his freshman year, he’d written and published a book that conclusively proved the existence of God, according to its young author. In just a few short years, he had become the de facto student leader of the Muslim Youth. Once he had control of the organization, Hekmatyar began advocating for violent dissent and eventually, bloodshed. As a fellow activist remembered: ‘He was a very good leader and a very smart man. The main problem was that he was very, very extreme.’
For young radicals like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the stakes of this Islamist movement were existential. As one prominent Islamist proclaimed, paraphrased here by Chris Sands:
Muslims were either in thrall to the West or stuck in the past, desperately clinging to their heritage and unwilling to adapt to a changing world. Untethered from its moral bearings and drifting ever further from God, civilization was on the brink of collapse. Only an Islamic reformation could save mankind.”
As these student organizations became larger and angrier in the early 1970s, the mood at Kabul University got more and more tense. There was an ideological bifurcation amongst the student body. Marxist versus Islamist. It was like gang warfare. Sharks versus Jets. Crips versus Bloods. And you absolutely had to pick a side. As Steve Coll writes:
“As the KGB-sponsored Marxists formed their cabals and recruited followers, equally militant Afghan Islamists rose up to oppose them. Every university student now confronted a choice: communism or radical Islam.
From the jump, Ahmed Shah Massoud was really, really turned off by Hekmatyar’s austere brand of fanaticism, but he did believe in the Muslim Youth’s mission to oppose the communist and atheist elements bubbling in Afghan society. So - for better or worse, he was in the club. But as the membership of the Muslim Youth swelled, Hekmatyar seemed to become bolder and more vicious.
Around this time, there was a series of mysterious attacks in Kabul. Young women who dressed in revealing Western clothes were ambushed by male students who sprayed acid into their faces as retribution for “immodest” behavior. Nobody could prove it, but Hekmatyar was widely suspected to be the instigator of these attacks.
As the temperature on campus rose, Hekmatyar’s reputation grew. At one point, he was arrested and briefly jailed for his role in sparking a riot that left one student dead – the kid was stabbed multiple times in broad daylight. After that, Hekmatyar was permanently on the government’s radar, and after being released from prison, he had to go underground and drop out of school entirely. With that, his transformation was complete. As Chris Sands writes:
“In the years since the movement’s formation, he had gone from being an engineering student with aspirations to work in the private sector to being a former convict wanted dead or alive by the government”.
Things eventually reached a breaking point in 1975. The Muslim Youth had grown tired of words and speeches and protests. It wasn’t enough to rough up Communists on the campus green. They wanted to bring down the Afghan government itself. In July 1975, in a coordinated uprising, aided and approved by agents from Pakistan’s intelligence services, hundreds of members of the Muslim Youth attacked government installations across Afghanistan.
And they failed spectacularly.
All that talk, all that bluster, and Hekmatyar’s great revolution was just a sizzle in the pan. They just didn’t have the numbers yet. But the Communists did. And from that moment on, every member of the Muslim Youth, including the quiet and bookish Ahmed Shah Massoud, had a target painted on their backs. As Sands writes:
They were no longer student activists but militant revolutionaries prepared to fight and die for their beliefs. The Muslim Youth were now mujahideen.”
To escape the government reprisals, the Muslim Youth had to flee across the border, into the safe harbor of neighboring Pakistan, where they received shelter, support, and military training from the sympathetic Islamist government there. And it’s at this point, that the Muslim Youth movement fractured. The band broke up.
Hekmatyar had become convinced, certain, that one of the key reasons the 1975 uprising failed, was because of spies within their ranks. Informants for the Afghan government embedded within the Muslim Youth itself. He tortured and murdered a handful of suspected spies within the mujahideen, and one of them, just happened to be one of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s closest friends.
Ahmed Shah Massoud was a minor player in the 1975 uprising, but many of his university friends had died in the fighting. And now Hekmatyar had murdered one of his closest companions. But still, Hekmatyar not satisfied. As far as he was concerned, Massoud was guilty by association. Your friend’s a snitch, so you must be too. In 1976, he sent assassins after Massoud himself.
One night in Peshawar, Massoud found himself surrounded in the street by several of Hekmatyar’s goons; but the 23-year-old guerilla whipped out a pair of pistols and scared them off. He spent the next several months moving from safehouse to safehouse, narrowly avoiding Hekmatyar’s hitmen.
Massoud never ever forgave Hekmatyar for the death of his friends, both in the uprising itself and in the purge afterwards. The attempt on his life was the nail in the coffin for their relationship. In Massoud’s mind, Hekmatyar was bad leader and a bad Muslim. Bloodthirsty, narcissistic, power hungry, and willing to throw away the lives of other people in pursuit of his own deranged vision. So, Ahmed Shah Massoud says, Ya know what? I’m out. You guys are out of your minds. You’re insane. I’m going back home to the Panjshir Valley and I’m going to fight the Communists *my* way. As one lifelong friend of Massoud’s explained:
‘I think he found in Peshawar that he was a strong Muslim, but he could not be an Islamist.’
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar did not like this. He did not like rivals; of any kind. Even back then, Hekmatyar recognized the threat that a talented kid like Massoud could pose to him down the road. As Chris Sands writes:
A confrontation between Massoud and Hekmatyar still felt inevitable to those who knew them, though precisely when and where they would settle their differences no one could tell.”
Massoud was only 23 years old at the time. Hekmatyar was just 27. Two years later, in 1978, the Communists fully took over the Afghan government. Hafizullah Amin and all those guys we talked about in Part 1. A year and a half after that, Amin had been assassinated by the Soviets and the 40th Army invaded.
Now at this point, you’re probably asking: Zach, why are we indulging in this extended flashback? Why are we talking about the roots of fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan in the 1970s? Shouldn’t we be going forward in time? Well, yes. And from this point on, we’ll be barreling ahead chronologically, I promise. But the reason we are talking about Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is because one of them would become the key beneficiary of support from the American CIA. Hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars throughout the 1980s. And I’m sure that the deeply cynical among you can already guess which horse Langley chose to back. But we’ll get to that later.
As the money flowed and the tensions rose, this vendetta between the two men – Massoud and Hekmatyar – would eventually explode into an all-out civil war amongst the Mujahideen.
The truth is, we cannot understand America’s role in the Soviet-Afghan War - or the catastrophic consequences of it - without understanding these two guys. And the stark differences between their visions for the future of Afghanistan. So, in 1979, as Soviet troops poured across the border, Massoud and Hekmatyar dug in to their respective slices of the map. Massoud in his rugged home in the Panjshir Valley, and Hekmatyar in cozy cocoon of Peshawar.
In time, the Soviets would learn to greatly fear them both.
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When we began this series back in Part 1, I said that there are no good guys in this story. But there is one, in my opinion, who comes pretty close to the ballpark.
THE LION OF PANJSHIR
In 1979, Ahmed Shah Massoud arrived back home the Panjshir Valley with thirty men, 17 rifles and $130 bucks.
In just a handful of years, the 26-year-old college dropout had transformed his motley crew of supporters into an elite force of thousands of Mujahideen fighters. One that the most feared army on the face of the planet – The Red Army - seemed powerless to defeat.
When Soviet tanks and gunships initially streamed across the border back in 1979, Massoud was faced with a critical question. How on earth could he possibly hope to defend his little valley from a force as large and well-equipped as the Soviet 40th Army? He found his answers on a bookshelf.
As we’ve mentioned, Massoud was a reader. And he devoured the words and theories of successful revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. He studied military tactics and absorbed the thinking of the counterinsurgencies that had worked so well in Cuba and China and Vietnam. It didn’t matter that they were Communists; a political ideology that he despised. Massoud just wanted to win, and if these guys knew how to do it, he was more than happy to absorb their lessons; if not their ideals.
But Massoud’s growing expertise was more than just theoretical. He had a natural talent for organization, logistics, and military strategy. His Dad had been an officer in the Afghan Royal Army years and years before, so he’d always grown up around drills, discipline, guys with guns.
Massoud’s most crucial talent, however, was the fact that he was just really, really good with people. His personality drew people to him like a magnet. Anyone who spent any significant amount of time fighting alongside Massoud grew to admire him with a fierce intensity and lifelong loyalty. But it wasn’t the blind adoration of a cult; Massoud was just decent to people. He was kind, genuine, honorable, and almost comically humble. In interviews, he often refrained from using the word “I”. Because he felt it created the impression that his achievements were his alone. He would always say “we did this” or “we did that”.
And that kind of quiet, competent charisma really won people over to his cause. As Sandy Gall writes in his biography of Massoud: “Massoud treated people with respect and dignity, and that is how he got people on his side and united people – by respecting their dignity.”
There’s one account from a rank-and-file Mujahideen that really captures how people felt about Massoud:
I wrote in my diary that this man Massoud is impressive, convincing; he has got something. Whether you want it or not, you like him. That something I described was with Massoud throughout his life; it was in his character. Many people fought to the death in Afghanistan under his command, and not just because he was a big commander. Once you were with him, you always wanted to be with him.”
Well, as it turned out, Massoud would need all the help he could get. Because after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he found himself directly in the crosshairs of the 40th Army. And that was as much a consequence of simple geography as it was his talent for guerilla warfare.
Massoud’s base of operations, as we’ve mentioned was the Panjshir Valley, that 90-mile diagonal cut of fertile river land, wedged between the mountains north of Kabul. As Steve Coll writes: “On a map it looks like an arrow pointing the way directly toward Afghanistan’s capital from the northeast.”
The mouth of the Panjshir Valley hovers like a dagger directly over a road called the Salang Highway, which was the only main road the Soviets could use to get troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan. In other words, Massoud had a knife to the 40th Army’s main logistical artery by merits of sheer geography, and the Soviets could not allow a threat like that to continue to exist. As Stephen Tanner writes:
Massoud’s misfortune was that his home ground thus comprised the one piece of real estate outside the major cities that the Soviets felt compelled to control.
From 1980 to 1983, the Soviets launched one apocalyptic offensive after another against Massoud’s forces in the Panjshir. And every time, his Mujahideen drove them back. When artillery didn’t work, the Soviets tried tanks. When tanks didn’t work, they tried helicopters, when helicopters didn’t work, they tried high-altitude carpet-bombing. But nothing seemed capable of definitively destroying Massoud and his Mujahedeen.
It was like the Soviets were pulling weeds in a garden, and every time, the weeds grew back, stronger and thornier than ever. The Soviets launched one offensive, two offensives, three offensives, and on and on and on. Nine times they tried to fight their way into the Panjshir Valley and nine times Ahmed Shah Massoud pushed them back or evaded them. As Massoud marveled with his trademark humility:
“The first time the Russian Army attacked us, I knew only one trick to stop them, and I used it and we won. The next time they entered the valley, I used the same trick, and again I beat them. I used it seven or eight times, but they never learned.”
One Mujahideen commented on Massoud’s leadership:
“There is an old Afghan saying that anyone who wants to conquer Afghanistan should beware, because under every rock of every mountain lies a sleeping lion. When Massoud was fighting the Soviets, they said, “And the lion is Ahmad Shah Massoud.”
People started calling Massoud “The Lion of the Panjshir”. Before long, he had achieved an international, folk-hero kind of status. Like Robin Hood with an AK-47. In many circles, he is considered a straight-up military genius. But Massoud didn’t just win respect by how he led his men and treated his friends. He also won respect by how he treated his enemies.
As one Mujahideen fighter remembered:
One day the commanders brought a Soviet prisoner to Massoud. The man was shivering, because it was very cold outside, and instead of paying attention to who he was or what he had done, Massoud said to his commanders, “Aren’t you Muslims? Look at him! He is shivering, he is shaking. Why don’t you give him something to wear?” Only afterwards did he begin to hear the prisoner’s story.
Massoud’s compassion to prisoners of war became well-known. And while he couldn’t control the circumstances of every prisoner his men took, he abhorred torture and cruelty, and stopped it whenever he saw it. As another Mujahideen remembered:
One of the Russians with a machine gun had killed a number of Afghans, and the Afghans started to beat him. Massoud grabbed the guy who was beating this Russian prisoner and punched him and knocked him down and said, “This man is just doing his job the way you do your job, and I never want you to raise your hand against a prisoner again.”
If anything, Massoud felt sympathy for the Soviet grunts, not hatred. As Chris Sands writes:
Massoud regarded the Russian troops as victims of an unjust war, much like the civilians and mujahideen they were killing. His real grievance was with the communist regime in Kabul, which he blamed for sanctioning the occupation.
Massoud certainly didn’t shy away from violence in pursuit of the larger goal of liberating Afghanistan from the Communists, but he didn’t glorify it either. As he told his men on one occasion:
“Brothers, killing a person is an easy thing. He will fall on the ground just by our pulling the trigger. It is not a work of virtue.”
By 1983, after three years and hundreds of soldiers killed, the Soviet 40th Army decided they had had enough of trying to beat Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. They needed the operational flexibility to pursue other Mujahideen factions throughout Afghanistan. Every tank blown up, every soldier killed, every APC overturned in the Panjshir was an asset that couldn’t be used somewhere else. Massoud was bleeding them dry, and they needed to stitch the wound.
So, through an intermediary, the Soviets quietly approach Massoud about a ceasefire. A truce. They say, look for six months, we’ll stop attacking you, if you stop attacking us. Ahmed Shah Massoud says, Yes. Sounds great.
Politically and strategically, it was a huge win for Massoud. This would allow him space to breathe, to build up his forces, to consolidate alliances. To make himself stronger, for the next time the Soviets attacked. And they most certainly did. In a matter of months the Russians were back at it again, but the weight of that moment was not lost on Massoud. A global superpower had made a desperate deal with a tribal warlord who controlled a 90-mile-long patch of land in the center of Eurasia. As he said at the time with no small sense of satisfaction: “The Russians have negotiated with a valley.”
But the brief reprieve from Soviet bullets and bombs allowed the Lion of Panjshir to deal with another, arguably bigger threat. His old rival, Hekmatyar, was getting aggressive. Mujahideen from Hekmatyar’s faction were starting to attack and kill and ambush Massoud’s troops and allies in the North. Already, the seeds of a civil war were beginning to germinate.
Far away in Peshawar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar watched Massoud’s growing influence and reputation with an irritation bordering on rage.
This kid, this nobody, this wallflower from back in the Muslim Youth days at Kabul U – was getting headlines and media coverage from Paris to Pennsylvania. And now he was making peace with the Soviets? Signing treaties and truces? In Hekmatyar’s mind, Massoud was a traitor, who would never have the strength to do what needed to be done. His soft, compassionate, moderate interpretation of Islam was an impediment to the destiny of *real* holy warriors. Massoud was a joke. A pretentious, puffed-up rooster showing his feathers on the world stage after a slew of petty successes.
Afghanistan’s true destiny, Hekmatyar believed, lay with him.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was not even in Afghanistan.
In fact, he rarely ever visited the front lines throughout the course of the entire war.
Massoud may have thrived on the battlefield, but Hekmatyar thrived in the backroom. Massoud knew people; Hekmatyar knew politics. And in the safe harbor of Peshawar, the frontier town, Hekmatyar put his immense political talents to work. As we mentioned earlier, Hekmatyar’s first name, “Gulbuddin”, means “flower of religion”, and that flower grew deep roots in the fertile soil of Pakistani patronage.
The Mujahideen movement that rose up against the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan was initially a very shapeless, organic thing. But in a few short years, it had coalesced into seven distinct factions or parties, all working together and sharing resources in a fragile balance of cooperation. The most powerful of these factions, by far, was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Since his days leading the Muslim Youth in the early 70s, Hekmatyar had only grown more extreme. As Chris Sands writes: “Hekmatyar had matured into a cold, ruthless, effective leader who tolerated no dissent and readily ordered the deaths of his opponents. He enhanced his power by running the tightest, most militaristic organization in Peshawar and in the refugee camps.”
Hekmatyar channeled his fanaticism into a work ethic that bordered on mechanical. He worked eighteen hours a day. Directed and planned military operations. Delivered religious sermons. Published his own newspaper. Traveled all over the world building support for the Afghan jihad. His energy and ambition seemed inexhaustible. As Sands writes, he was: “a hybrid of firebrand preacher, rogue army general and outlaw statesman”. But Hekmatyar’s greatest asset of all was his very close relationship with the Pakistani government.
The ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, had decided to put all their chips on Hekmatyar. They liked his unique blend of fervent Islamism, political acumen, and comfort with brutal violence. He was their boy, their poster child for what the future of Afghanistan could look like.
WHEN LANGLEY MET HEKMATYAR
And when the CIA came knocking on Pakistan’s door with billions of dollars, hoping to inflict a Vietnam-style debacle on the Soviets, the Pakistanis said boy, oh boy, have we got the guy for you.
At the time, the CIA did not have a lot of institutional knowledge about the subtleties and dynamics of the Mujahideen movement, or Afghanistan in general. So they deferred to Pakistan’s regional expertise. The ISI had those existing relationships on the ground, so rather than being bulls in a China shop, the CIA was content to slip envelopes of money under the door, and the ISI would make sure it got to the right people.
It wasn’t a completely opaque transaction, though. The CIA were professionals if nothing else, and they naturally wanted to know what - and who - their money was buying. They said to the Pakistanis, okay so we’ve got all this money to spend killing Soviets. Who should we be giving it to? I mean, spread it around, but who’s the one person we should really be equipping with all of our best stuff? We got the toys; Who can play with them the best? We hear this Ahmed Shah Massoud guy is doing pretty well in the Panjshir Valley. Should we be talking to him?
Pakistan says No no no, that guy? He’s a chump. He signs deals with the Soviets. Forget about Massoud. If you want to kill Russians, pure and simple, your best bet is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
So the CIA looks at Hekmatyar’s resume. And they are very impressed. As Chris Sands writes:
Hekmatyar’s fighters earned a reputation for savagery unmatched by the other parties. Russian soldiers warned comrades who had just arrived in Afghanistan not to wander off base or Hizbis would skin them alive. Others described how they found the corpses of missing colleagues with their eyes gouged out and strange symbols carved into their flesh. Rumors circulated that mujahideen were hacking off the limbs of prisoners, before binding their wounds with tourniquets to ensure they would survive horribly disfigured, rather than bleed to death.
His methods were…. distasteful, but according to the ISI, Hekmatyar was the one Mujahideen leader who was having the most success against the 40th Army. And that was enough for the suits in Langley. Historian Chris Sands continues: “To the CIA, the group’s fanaticism and brutality was part of its appeal; Hekmatyar would stop at nothing to defeat the communists.”
As Milton Bearden, the CIA Station Chief in Pakistan put it: “The mission was to kill Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar killed Soviets.”
So as the United States Congress earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Mujahideen, the lion’s share of it ended up in the bank account of the most extreme, most fanatical, most fundamentalist leader out there: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. With all that money and matériel, he consolidated his power, attacked his rivals, and generally made life hell for anyone in Afghanistan who opposed him. Peshawar was Hekmatyar’s town, and if you crossed him, you got the Goodfellas treatment. As Chris Sands elaborates:
Corpses were found floating facedown and bloated near the dam at Warsak, their mottled skin shades of purple and blue. Others were left where they had been shot, their bodies surrounded by spent bullet casings. Still more vanished without a trace, their fates subject to conjecture and rumor for years to come. In most instances there was no definitive evidence that Hizb, much less Hekmatyar, was responsible, yet friends and relatives of the victims were in no doubt.
Jan Goodwin, the Executive Editor of Ladies Home Journal who we spent so much time with in Part 2, actually interviewed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar while she was in Peshawar in ‘85, and she was not impressed. She thought he was self-obsessed and manipulative. A” megalomaniac.” Even in that brief meeting, his narcissism was palpable, as Jan wrote: “He told me in all seriousness that the Soviets only invaded Afghanistan to destroy him and his party.”
At one point, Jan had to literally stifle her laughter because Hekmatyar’s self-congratulating style was so over-the-top. Ahmed Shah Massoud hated to use the word “I”. Well, Hekmatyar hated to use the word “We”. Still, Jan couldn’t deny the terrifying scope of Hekmatyar’s influence, and with money from Washington lining his pockets, it grew more and more each day. As Jan wrote: “He is the only Afghan I met of whom Mujahideen from all seven parties admitted being afraid.”
The tendrils of Hekmatyar’s operation reached throughout the world. He had contacts in Europe, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia. At one point, he even traveled to America. In 1985, Hekmatyar flew to New York City to represent his Mujahideen party in talks with the United Nations. Afterwards, U.S officials informed Hekmatyar that Ronald Reagan wanted to personally meet him at the White House. Hekmatyar declined.
Shaking hands with the President of the United States would be bad for his brand. Taking the Americans money was one thing. But as Chris Sands writes: “he was not interested in going to the White House just so the US president could use him for a photo opportunity.” Hekmatyar was also asked “if he would like to visit some of New York’s tourist attractions instead. Hekmatyar declined, claiming the city was full of ‘houses of prostitution.’
The truth was, Hekmatyar had always despised the American Empire. Just as much, if not more than the Soviet Union. For committed Islamists like Hekmatyar, imperialism was a four-letter word, whether you spelled it English or Russian. It didn’t matter if you rocked hammers & sickles or stars & stripes, both the superpowers were his enemies. Thieves, meddlers, and colonizers, all.
At the time, the CIA was blind or at least willfully ignorant to Hekmatyar’s anti-American world view. In his book Night Letters, Chris Sands writes that Hekmatyar’s fanaticism “endeared him to US officials eager to ratchet up the pressure on the Soviets. They did not stop to think about what would happen when he finished killing Russians and turned his guns on them.”
Former US ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen echoed that idea as well, writing: “American intelligence and diplomatic analyses, imprisoned in Cold War constructs, remained oblivious to the radical Islamic menace gathering on the Pakistani Frontier.”
Because Hekmatyar had a plan. A long game. He took weapons from anyone who would give them. From America, from Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia. From the Chinese. He was building an empire. What one historian called “a government-in-waiting”. His plan was to let more skilled Mujahideen commanders like Ahmed Shah Massoud walk into the buzz-saw of Soviet firepower, year after year; to sit back and watch his rivals get weaker and weaker, as he got stronger and stronger. As Chris Sands writes:
“He had no intention of leaving Afghanistan’s fate to the rest of the parties: victory would come in his image or not at all.” […]
He would therefore agree to take any weapons that were available, regardless of their origins, knowing that he could use them to defeat the Soviets and his mujahideen rivals, before storming to power in Kabul. Once ensconced in the capital as head of his Islamist regime, he could turn the guns on his former suppliers in Washington via his proxies across the Islamic world.”[…]
He vowed to himself that things would change when he was in charge of Afghanistan: the Americans would cower in awe of Muslims, not the other way around.
The Soviets would leave eventually. All Hekmatyar had to do was be the last Mujahideen standing. Still, even as early as 1985, some CIA officers got a really bad vibe from Hekmatyar. As one recalled years after the fact:
“I would put my arms around Gulbuddin and we’d hug, you know, like brothers in combat and stuff, and his coal black eyes would look back at you, and you just knew that there was only one thing holding this team together and that was the Soviet Union.”
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In the spring of 1985, the Soviet Union was dying.
Violets bloomed in Ukraine. Pink azaleas sprouted in Siberia. And red tulips blossomed in Kazakhstan. But it was like rouge on a corpse. The 70-year political experiment known as Communist Russia was teetering on the brink of total collapse.
The economy was in free-fall, strangled by the political realities of late-stage Communism and weighed down by a massive, bloated military industrial complex. The Kremlin was full of old men who could barely make it to the bathroom, much less deliver an inspiring speech. Food shortages were all too common. The average Soviet citizen could barely afford a washing machine, much less a car. And corruption was an occupational prerequisite for the creaky bureaucratic machine that kept the whole thing grinding and sputtering along.
And the worst part was, you couldn’t even speak up about these widespread problems. At this time, to openly criticize the Communist Party was, social, professional, and in some cases, literal suicide. There’s a Soviet saying from the period that sums all this up beautifully:
“There’s no unemployment, yet nobody works. Nobody works, but the plan gets fulfilled. The plan gets fulfilled, yet there’s nothing in the shops. There’s nothing in the shops, yet every fridge is full. Every fridge is full, yet everyone complains. Everyone complains, and yet the same people keep getting elected.”
As historian Mir Tamim Ansary snarkily observed: “THIS was the country that was, to Western eyes, winning the Cold War and might soon (cue evil laughter) rule the world”
The Soviet Union was dying. And any Soviet citizen looking to the Kremlin for lively, energetic leadership was sorely disappointed. Since the 40th Army had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Russia’s leaders had been keeling over at an alarming rate. In four years, the top spot in the USSR had been occupied by no less than three elderly men, each frailer and more infirm than the last. It was an era, according to Peter Tomsen: “characterized by preservation of the status quo—and leaders in wheelchairs.”
Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who had made the fateful decision to go into Afghanistan in the first place, was long dead. He’d finally croaked in 1982. His successor, KGB director Yuri Andropov, was already battling liver disease and respiratory problems when he took the big job. Fifteen months later, he was dead too. The next guy, who is so irrelevant to our story that I shan’t even mention his name, was also dead within a year. Ronald Reagan famously joked at the time: “I keep trying to negotiate with Soviet leaders, and they keep dying on me.”
If nothing else, at least the florists and funeral directors were scratching out a decent living in the Soviet economy. Suffice to say, things were looking very, very bad for Russia. To paraphrase one historian, it was like the Soviet Union was set to auto-pilot, heading for a cliff, with the engine on fire. But in the spring of 1985, a much younger man grabbed the wheel and pumped the brakes.
His name was Mikhail Gorbachev.
The 54-year-old Gorbachev was a dewy-eyed kid in comparison to his septuagenarian predecessors. And unlike them, he recognized the existential peril his Party faced if it refused to grow and change. After years of climbing the Kremlin’s ladder, Gorbachev had come to the conclusion that the only way to save the Soviet Union from itself was to shake things up in a massive way; to cut loose the decades of dusty ideological baggage that was stopping Russia from adapting to the modern era. As Gorbachev remembered: “I was ashamed for my country—perhaps the country with the richest resources on Earth, and we couldn’t provide toothpaste for our people.”
At the time, there were many who believed that reforming the Soviet Union was an impossible task. But Gorbachev was a dreamer, an optimist; a vodka-glass-half-full kinda guy. He was determined to be a breath of fresh air in the desiccated lungs of the Soviet bureaucracy. A transfusion of young red blood flowing into the shriveled heart of the Party. And one of the top priorities on Gorbachev’s list of wrongs to right, was the disastrous war in Afghanistan.
Gorbachev made his position on Afghanistan crystal clear when he addressed the Politburo in 1986. Afghanistan, he said, was “a bleeding wound. [….] A million of our soldiers went through Afghanistan. And we will not be able to explain to our people why we did not complete it. We suffered such heavy losses! And what for?”
A private in the 40th Army signal corps echoed that sentiment: “When we drove through Kabul the women threw sticks and stones at our tanks, kids swore at us in perfect Russian: “Russky, go home. What were we doing there?”
It was an opinion was shared by millions of the common people throughout the Soviet Empire. The Kremlin had always denied or downplayed the existence of the war in Afghanistan, but by the mid-80s it was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Because those boys - the 18, 19, 20 year old kids who had fought, bled, murdered, and suffered in the mountains of Afghanistan - those kids were cycling back home. And they were coming home without legs, without hands, without teeth, without eyes, and without the personalities their families had known from before.
The secrecy around the Afghan War was so absolute, that bodies of dead soldiers were delivered to the families in the middle of the night, away from prying eyes. The dead men were sealed in special zinc coffins, soldered shut like sardines in a can. The families had no way of knowing for sure if the body inside was actually their son, or brother, or husband. They just had to take the Army officers’ word for it. As one mother of a dead Soviet soldier said: “I don’t believe he’s dead. I’m sure I’ve buried a metal box and my son is alive somewhere.”
Mikhail Gorbachev knew it would be dangerous, but he decided one of the key changes that needed to happen in Soviet society was around public discourse. The people needed to be able to voice their opinions. To say what was on their mind – within reason – and speak honestly and openly about the challenges the USSR faced. Most importantly, the press needed to be able to report truthfully without fear of being intimidated or shut down.
Gorbachev called this policy of transparency, glasnost. Glass being the operative etymological root there. See-through, like glass. Nothing to hide behind. Almost overnight, Soviet reporters began to cover the war in Afghanistan as it really was. To report on what was happening to the troops, to the Mujahideen, to the nurses and the peasants and the refugees. And the Russian public was understandably outraged by the growing revelations. A lieutenant Colonel in the 40th Army remarked years later: “It’s been a strange war. We went in when stagnation was at its peak and now leave when truth is raging.”
In this climate of openness and honesty and political reckoning, the Soviet soldiers who had finished their service began to reintegrate into Soviet society. And it was not easy. This was a popular Soviet joke about Afghanistan at the time:
“An officer in Afghanistan goes back home on army business. He goes to the hairdresser. ‘how are things in Afghanistan?’ she asks him. ‘Getting better’ he replies. A few minutes later, she asks him again, ‘how are things in Afghanistan?’. ‘Getting better…’ he replies. A little while later: ‘how are things in Afghanistan?” ‘Getting better.’ Eventually he pays and leaves.. ‘Why did you keep asking him the same question?’ her colleagues ask her.
“Whenever I mentioned Afghanistan, his hair stood on end and it was easier to cut.”
Humor could help take the edge off some of the trauma. But at the end of the day, those experiences were very hard to leave behind. As a 30-year-old army nurse confided to Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich at the time:
“Coming home was terribly difficult and very strange. I felt I’d had my skin ripped off. I couldn’t stop crying, I could bear only to be with people who’d been there themselves. […] You try and live a normal life, the way you lived before,. But you can’t. […] Nowadays I don’t just hate war. I can’t even stand seeing a couple of boys having a scrap in the park. In summer, when I breathe the hot dusty air, or see a poll of stagnant water, or smell the dry flowers in the fields, it’s like a punch in the head. I’ll be haunted by Afghanistan for the rest of my life.”
That’s one thing you hear a lot from veterans of the 40th Army and the Soviet-Afghan war. Afghanistan stuck with you forever. It haunted you. It changed you. And for many of them, it was impossible to fully scrub the war from their psyche. One soldier said:
”Sometimes it seems that besides Afghanistan, mountains and war, there’s nothing else in my life. No childhood, no parents, no school. It’s as if you were born here 20 years ago, complete with a backpack, a gun, and a dry ration.”
Artyom Borovik put it beautifully in his book The Hidden War:
“It seems to me that even the chemical composition of my cells has changed. I have the feeling that when I return home and have my blood analyzed, it will turn out to be different from the sample that was drawn two years ago.”
Many Soviet soldiers tried to pick up their lives where they’d left off before the war, but found they no longer cared about the things they had before. As one soldier admitted:
“Yes I was fine on the surface. But on the inside I was on fire. Everything irritates me now – even sunshine, or cheerful songs, or someone laughing. My old books, my tape recorder, photos and guitar are all in my bedroom as before, but I’ve changed. I can’t walk through the park without looking behind me.”
The root cause of all these personality disruptions, was, of course, the visceral memories the soldiers carried with them. One veteran said that each of them carried “a graveyard of memories”. In Afghanistan, the soldiers, nurses, doctors, and civilian employees in the 40th Army saw things that were impossible to forget. One private said:
“My best friend, he was like a brother to me. I brought him back from a raid in a plastic bag. His head cut off, and his arms and legs, all flayed – yes, skinned. He used to play the violin and write poetry. His mother went mad two days after the funeral. She ran to the cemetery and tried to lie down with him.”
In addition to the memories, many soldiers came home with terrible wounds, both external and internal. One soldier who’d had to undergo an emergency operation after a chunk of shrapnel had lodged in his brain, said this:
They removed one and a half cubic centimeters of my brain, including some kind of nerve center connected with the sense of smell. Even now, five years later, I can’t smell flowers, or tobacco smoke, or a woman’s perfume.”
Other wounds were even more difficult to ignore. Another soldier, a double amputee, reflected:
“I felt so tiny without my prostheses. I’d lie there in my underpants and T-shirt, which was as long as I was.”
Even soldiers who’d come back with all their limbs and organs intact carried feelings of guilt and anguish over what they’d done in Afghanistan. One officer reflected:
“The Afghans weren’t people to us, and vice versa, we couldn’t afford to see them as human beings.”
One nurse admitted:
“We survived by hating. But I felt full of guilt when I got back home and looked back on it all. Sometimes we massacred a whole village in revenge for our boys, Over there it seemed right, here it horrifies me.”
A Soviet advisor said that after all the death he had dealt in Afghanistan, he couldn’t stomach violence of any kind:
“If we buy a live chicken from the market, it’s my wife who has to slaughter it.”
Other soldiers felt no remorse about what they had done during the war. As one said defiantly:
We pointed our guns where we were told, then fired them, exactly as we’d been trained. And I didn’t care, not even if I killed a child. Everyone was part of it over there: men and women, young and old, kids. One time […] a boy, about ten years old, rushed out and stabbed one of our men in the back, just where the heart is. We turned that boy into a sieve.”
Another soldier admitted:
“Whenever I saw a lot of them together now, I started shooting. I shot up an Afghan wedding. I got the happy couple, the bride and groom. I’m not sorry for them. I’ve lost friends.”
Many soldiers, however, felt they’d fought the war with as much honor and dignity as humanly possible:
“I don’t feel guilty and I don’t get nightmares. I always chose honest combat – him against me. If I saw a couple of our lads beating up a POW with his hands tied behind his back, lying on the ground like a bundle of rags, I’d chase them away. I despised people like that.”
Other Soviet soldiers were surprised to realize that once they got home, they actually missed Afghanistan. It was like it was a part of their DNA now. And regular civilian life seemed dull by comparison. As one said:
“I’ll tell you straight, those were the best years of my life. Life here is rather grey and petty: work, home, home work. There, we had to work everything out for ourselves and test our mettle as men. So much of it was exotic too, the way the morning mist swirled in the ravines like a smokescreen. There are places there that remind you of the moon with their fantastic, cosmic landscapes. You get the feeling that there’s nothing alive in those unchanging mountains. That it’s nothing but rocks, but then the rocks start shooting at you! [….] We existed between life and death, and we held other men’s life and death in our hands too. Is there anything more powerful than that? We’ll never walk, or make love, or be loved, the way we walked and loved and were loved over there. Everything was heightened by the closeness of death: death hovered everywhere and all the time. Life was full of adventure.”
To soldiers like that, Afghanistan was like a drug. And leaving it sent them into withdrawals:
“I can’t adjust to this world. I tried, but it didn’t work. My blood pressure shot up – I need stress, the edge, that contempt for life with sends adrenaline racing through my veins. I need that fast pace, the excitement of going into attack.”
Coming home hit differently for different people. At the end of the day, a lot of soldiers were just so grateful to be alive after their ordeal. As one confided to Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich:
“You get home and land in a completely different world – the world of the family. The first few days you don’t hear a thing they say. You just watch them, and touch them. I can’t explain what it means to stroke your child’s head after everything that’s happened. The morning smell of coffee and pancakes, your wife calling you to breakfast. […] At night, lying beside your wife, you still taste the Afghan sand, soft as flour, between your teeth.”
But many, many Soviet soldiers, about 15,000 of them, did not come home at all. All that was left of them was a sealed zinc coffin and the wreckage of the family they left behind. The Soviet-Afghan war was particularly hard on the mothers of the teenage boys and young men who’d left for Afghanistan and never returned.
As one soldier observed: “This was the mothers war. They were the ones who did the fighting.” What he’s talking about there is a battle against grief. About losing your child, and having to soldier on through a world without your them in it. One mother told the writer Svetlana Alexievich how she felt in the aftermath of her son’s death in Afghanistan:
“It was over a year before I felt I could face people again. Before that I was totally alone. I blamed everyone for my son’s death – my friend who worked in the bakery, a taxi-driver I’d never seen before in my life, a commissar. I realize that was wrong. Then I wanted to be with the only people who could know what I was going through. We got to know each other at the cemetery, by the gravesides.[….] We talk about only one thing, our children as if they were still alive. I know some of the stories of their heart.”
Another mother spoke even more candidly:
“Yura was my eldest son. A mother shouldn’t admit it, probably, but he was my favorite. I loved him more than my husband and my younger son. When he was little I slept with my hand on this little foot.” [….]
Yura went off to Afghanistan to fight. So did the younger, but less favored brother, a boy named Gena. But a few months later, Russian officers showed up the family’s door with a zinc coffin at their feet and hats in hand. The mother remembered:
I knew from their faces that they were bringing bad news. I stepped back into the flat. There was one last terrible hope. “Is it Gena?” They wouldn’t look at me, but I was still prepared to give them one son to save the other. Is it “Gena?”. “No, it’s Yura, one of them said very quietly.”
I can’t carry on any longer. I just can’t. I’ve been dying for two years now. I’m not ill, but I’m dying. My whole body is dead.”
Another woman spoke about her daughter Svetotchka, who had died while serving as a nurse in Afghanistan:
“I was frightened by the passing of time. I knew it would take her, the memory of her, away from me. Some things about her are receding already. The things she used to say, the way she smiled. I collected the stray hairs from her suit and kept them in a matchbox. ‘What are you doing that for?’ my husband wanted to know. ‘Let me do it. It’s all there is left of her.”
As the bodies came home and the earth filled up with zinc coffins, an anti-war coalition began to sprout in the fertile conditions of Gorbachev’s new glasnost or “openness” policy. And the anti-war movement wasn’t spearheaded by the young people, or the veterans, or the reformers…it was led by the mothers and widows of dead soldiers in Afghanistan. Young women, middle-aged women, old women, who had all drunk from the bitter cup of war and were telling the Soviet government it was time for this thing to end.
It was a message that rang loud and clear in the ears of Mikhail Gorbachev. To revitalize the Soviet Union for the future, he had to rectify the sins of the past. As he said in 1986:
“We have been waging war in Afghanistan for six years now. If we don’t change our approach, we’ll be there for another twenty or thirty years. We must end this process in the swiftest possible time.”
It was time for the 40th Army to get out.
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In October of 1987, a 36-year-old British national named Andy Skrzypkowiak (Sh-krip-kow-yak) was traveling through the mountains of Afghanistan. Andy was a TV cameraman, and like most cameramen in Afghanistan, he was there to capture footage of the Mujahideen freedom fighters. It was a career-making opportunity he felt he could not afford to miss. As Andy said to a friend:
“This war will go down in history, and I want to be there, close, getting it all on film.”
Andy had been to the Panjshir Valley once before, in 1986. He’d shot footage for an ITV documentary called Afghanistan: The Agony of a Nation. The Mujahideen had allowed Andy and his crew to stay in the Panjshir and capture footage of them, specifically their handsome, world-famous commander: Ahmed Shah Massoud, the ”Lion of Panjshir”.
Massoud had been warm, friendly and hospitable. His easy smile and quiet intensity looked great on film. The commander was already a household name in Europe and to some extent America, but the documentary was a hit and raised his profile even more. As Chris Sands writes:
In TV footage, he cut a dashing and romantic figure, the quintessential warrior poet. He spoke French and played chess; read widely and prayed habitually; fought in the name of Islam but did not hate America.
And in 1987, Andy was sent back to get more footage of Massoud for the BBC. As he traveled towards the valley, he was excited to be back in the mix again.
But along the way, he was stopped by a different band of freedom fighters. These Mujahideen did not take orders from Ahmed Shah Massoud. They were from a different faction. It’s unclear if Andy knew it at the time, but these Mujahideen were loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The mountains were dangerous, they said. There were bandits and the occasional Soviet patrol, so they offered to escort him through the countryside. Andy was not gullible. Before he’d become a journalist, he’d been a British soldier. He was
Andy was a man of the world, and he knew these guys were bad news. So he ran. Hekmatyar’s men followed in hot pursuit, and they eventually caught up with him and detained him. Later that night, as he slept, Hekmatyar’s Mujahideen crushed Andy’s skull with a rock. They buried his body in the sleeping bag he was killed in, and hawked his 16mm camera at a bazaar in a nearby town.
Andy Skrzypkowiak’s murder shocked the world. It was rare for Western journalists to be killed inside Afghanistan by the Soviets, much less by their Mujahideen hosts. When Ahmed Shah Massoud heard about it, he quickly and angrily deduced exactly who’d had Andy murdered: His old enemy, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Hekmatyar’s feud with Massoud was almost 15 years old at this point. By this time, they were both in their mid-to-late 30s, a far cry from the idealistic young men who’d prowled and protested the campus grounds at Kabul University. It seemed like a lifetime ago. But their long-running vendetta had only intensified over the decades. Massoud had inflicted horrible defeats on Hekmatyar’s troops in sporadic territorial clashes. In response, Hekmatyar had attempted to have Massoud assassinated multiple times, in multiple ways. From the gun locker to the poisoner’s cabinet, no plot seemed capable of killing the Lion of Panjshir.
When he couldn’t hurt Massoud, Hekmatyar went after people close to him. In the early 80s, Massoud’s half-brother traveled to the US consulate in Peshawar to receive treatment for kidney disease, before he could leave the country, he was shoved into a car and never seen again. Massoud assumed the only rational culprit was Hekmatyar.
With each passing year, the feud got uglier and uglier.
Hekmatyar fumed at the fawning overseas press coverage of Massoud. The Western media tripped over themselves to heap praise and attention on Massoud, they literally lionized him, calling him “The Lion on Panjshir”. It made Hekmatyar jealous and angry, but there were practical, rather than personal reasons for killing cameramen who added to Massoud’s legendary reputation. Every article, every documentary, every picture and press release and photo-op just attracted more Mujahideen to Massoud’s coalition. And by the late 1980s, Massoud’s power had grown exponentially.
After a string of failed operations, the Soviet 40th Army had given up trying to take the Panjshir Valley. The truce of 1983 had only lasted a few months, but that breathing room had given Massoud time, money, and resources to patch together a diverse coalition of other Mujahideen groups. 130 commanders from 12 provinces had pledged to work and fight alongside to Ahmed Shah Massoud. He called it the Council of the North, and that alliance made the hairs on Hekmatyar’s neck stand straight up.
Massoud called Hekmatyar’s murderous brand of extremism a “cancer”, and for the last half of the war, the Mujahideen fought each other almost as often as they fought the Soviets.
But Hekmatyar still had the upper hand. Massoud may have been the Lion of Panjshir, but Hekmatyar was still getting the lion’s share of the money and weapons from Pakistan. The CIA and Saudi Arabia had backed Hekmatyar. He had received millions of dollars, guns, ammunition, artillery – he’d even received large shipments of the notorious American Stinger Missiles that could shoot Soviet helicopters out of the sky like clay pigeons. But still, Hekmatyar could not understand, or could not accept, what made Ahmed Shah Massoud so popular with the common Afghan people. Why his men were so loyal. Why the press was so fascinated.
Hekmatyar ruled his party through terror, zealotry, and violence. But Ahmed Shah Massoud ruled with something else. As one Mujahideen remembered about Massoud’s leadership style:
“It is the type of society where you have to win the trust of individuals, one by one. You have to talk with the people in this village and that village and motivate them; you know, the motivation in one is different than another. It is very complicated, but that is how he became famous.
Fame has the tendency to go to a person’s head. But even as his face was slapped on the covers of French magazines and British documentary specials, Massoud remained incredibly down-to-earth. As one of his Mujahideen remembered:
While we were actually training, Massoud was the trainer, but when we were in the house, he was just a roommate. If we cooked, he cooked with us; if we washed the dishes, he washed the dishes; when we cleaned the room, he cleaned the room. Afterwards, when we would go to gather wood for cooking, he would go with us. Even when we went to play baseball or soccer, he played with us.
Another Mujahideen said:
He could have lived like a king, but he chose not to. He washed his own clothes, even his socks. He was as down to earth as he could be with people, to make sure they understood that it was not about power, it was about working for people, defending people.
One thing that seemed to set Massoud apart, was how much he cared for his guys, for his soldiers. One fighter remembered a particularly chilly evening:
Massoud had a room in the same building. It was cold, maybe December or January, and at ten or eleven when we were sleeping, Massoud came around to make sure that everybody had blankets and enough clothes to stay warm through the night. I have never seen a commander checking on his people like that.
But behind the larger-than-life personality, Ahmed Shah Massoud was wracked by feelings of doubt and insecurity. He worried that they were not winning the war against the Soviets fast enough. Millions of Afghans were dead or displaced, with more dying every day. In his diaries, Massoud accused himself of being lazy, of letting his people down: “I have not been immune to sins and mistakes, and on this path I have not always exerted myself to the necessary limit. My deliberate and unconscious errors rest on me.”
Publicly, he tried his best to put on a brave face. A journalist named Mackenzie once asked Massoud if he ever felt happy. The Lion of Panjshir answered: “I am never unhappy in my life.” His diaries told a different story; in one entry, he wrote: “It is only awareness of sin that makes me fear death, otherwise I have no particular enthusiasm for this life.” The war placed a terrible burden of responsibility on Massoud. And at times it was almost too much for him. As he wrote in his diary:
“For some reason, I was in pain all night, with a strong and soul-reducing pain … My nerves are oppressed and my body is weak; I can’t bear talking or walking. I want to be in a corner, praying to God and asking for forgiveness, and not working any more, but military affairs and ten other problems that keep us busy and torment us.”
He went on to reflect on his own mortality.
‘Right now, am I afraid of death?’ No, definitely not. I swear by God, if I were killed at this moment, I would be satisfied to die, and I have full faith that God would respect His promises and would forgive my sins, greater or lesser, and would grant me eternal life and peace as my portion. My only worry is my brother mujahideen who are with me in the same base; how would they fare? This is a painful thought.”
But still, Massoud knew that the Russians were on the run. It was only a matter of time before their long war against the Soviets was over:
“To what extent will the Russians succeed in their plans? I am writing frankly: none.”
He was right.
On March 3rd, 1988, the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Politburo in Moscow. He told the assembly that the Soviet 40th Army would be withdrawing from Afghanistan within a year. And that came as a surprise to virtually no one.
The Soviet military had known for years, almost from the very beginning, that Afghanistan was a lost cause. As one Russian general named Anatoli Gromov had privately admitted to Ahmed Shah Massoud while negotiating the 1983 ceasefire:
“This war is not a just war, [it is] one from which neither the Soviet Union nor Afghanistan is benefiting. It was started for the wrong reasons. We thought that Americans and other Westerners were here, but we did not see a single one. It is all Afghans who are opposing us. We are fighting people like farmers and laborers. This war must stop. We are supporting a bunch of traitors who have no place in the hearts and minds of Afghan people. As I see it, non-Muslims have no right to govern Afghanistan.”
The Soviet political establishment had come to terms with reality too. A diplomatic advisor named Chernyaev wrote in his diary:
“Ten of our boys are dying every day. The people are disenchanted and ask: How long are our troops going to remain there? And when will the Afghans learn to defend themselves? (He means the Afghan communist regime) The main thing is that there is no popular base, and without that no revolution can defend itself. What’s recommended is a sharp U-turn, back to free capitalism, to Afghan and Islamic values.”
Things had gotten so bad, that even high-ranking Soviet politicians were suggesting that the Afghan client regime shift to free market values just to survive. Facing immense pressure at home and abroad, Mikhail Gorbachev made the decision to begin the withdrawal of the 40th Army. It would take time, but it had to be done. The USSR needed to move on. They needed to put the catastrophe behind them. But Gorbachev felt it was important to withdraw in a way that would leave the nation’s dignity intact. As he told the Politburo:
"There will be questions, even in our country. What did we fight for? What did we sacrifice so many for? In the Third World there will be questions. They're already coming in. You can't depend on the Soviet Union, they say. It leaves its friends to the mercy of the United States. And here we must not budge. […] “The country, the world, is ready for us to do this. In politics, it is not only what you do that matters, but also when and how."
"We could leave quickly ... and blame everything thing on the previous leadership, which planned everything. But we can't do that.” [….]
In the Kremlin’s eyes, the only way to salvage a little dignity out of this debacle, was to make a deal with the United States. One that made it look like both sides were backing off, rather than the Soviet Union tucking tail and running for the hills. The superpowers had to withdraw their respective feet from the sands of Afghanistan at the same time. The US had to stop arming the Mujahideen, so the Soviet Union could ensure the survival of their client regime in Kabul. It was a matter of honor. As Gorbachev put it:
“The day Soviet troops start withdrawing should be the day that American military aid is stopped.”
That kind of posturing elicited laughter from Langley to Islamabad. The CIA had no interest in soothing Soviet dignity. Why should they stop? Why should they ramp down? Billions of dollars had been spent making the 40th Army’s stay in Afghanistan a living hell. Why should its departure be any different?
Washington spent most of 1988 playing games with Gorbachev. Moving the goal posts. Asking for this and for that, with no intention of cutting their funding to the Mujahideen. American dollars would pour into Afghanistan until the last Soviet tank drove out, and after, for as long as they deemed it strategically advantageous. In response to all this dicking around, Soviet negotiators issued threats to the CIA. And they got a chilling, aloof response.
Take this exchange between a Soviet representative and CIA Station Chief in Islamabad Milton Bearden. “You must understand, Mr. Bearden, that these attacks against our troops as they withdraw must stop.” Bearden replied “And if they don’t?” The Russian responded “Then perhaps we will halt our withdrawal. Then what will you do?” Bearden simply called his bluff: “It is not what I will do, it’s what the Afghans will do. And I think they will simply keep on fighting and killing your soldiers until you finally just go home.”
A month after Gorbachev’s speech to the Politburo, on April 14th, 1988, the Soviet Union signed the Geneva Accords, which made the whole thing official. America signed it. Pakistan signed it. The Afghan Communist government signed it. Everyone was there – except the one group who mattered the most. No one from the Mujahideen was invited to the talks - not Hekmatyar and not Massoud.
Their war, it seemed, was destined to go on. And as for the Afghan Communists in Kabul who’d started this mess in the first place? Well, they were on their own. The Soviets had entered Afghanistan to stop a civil war, but all they’d managed to do was add gasoline to the blaze. Peace in Afghanistan was still nowhere in sight.
But still, the signing of the Geneva Accords gave the Soviet people an indescribable sense of relief. Finally, it was going to be over. But there were many who felt nauseated by the mess they were leaving behind. The Soviet Foreign Minister who signed the Geneva Accords remembered afterwards:
One would have thought I would have been happy: no more coffins were coming home. We’ll close the account: both of the deaths and of the drain on our resources, which had reached 60 billion rubles … It was hard for me to realise that I was the Foreign Minister who had signed what was certainly not an agreement about a victory. There aren’t many examples of that in Russian or Soviet history. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the people we had trained up, pushed into a revolution, and were now abandoning to face a mortal foe alone”
We will leave the country in a deplorable situation. Ruined cities and villages, a paralyzed economy. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. Our withdrawal will be regarded as a major political and military defeat. … We may not be able to distance ourselves easily from the past by arguing that we do not bear responsibility for our predecessors.”
For all seven Mujahideen factions, the prevailing emotion was not relief, but resolve. With the 40th Army gone, Kabul would be unprotected. The Afghan Communist regime, the government that had provoked the jihad in the first place, seemed ripe for the toppling. Hekmatyar and Massoud were like runners on the starting line of a track, eyes fixed on the capital and waiting for the signal to sprint. As Ahmed Shah Massoud wrote in his diary:
This is a crucial time for us, and every day and hour matters, because our revolution is coming to fruition. The Russians are pulling out, and everybody within Afghanistan and internationally knows that the regime will not last.”
The future of post-Soviet Afghanistan looked very ominous indeed. As Steve Coll writes:
In Afghanistan the stage was set not for a triumphal reconciliation on one of the Cold War’s most destructive battlefields but for an ugly new phase of regional and civil war.
THE FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE
As December 1988 became January 1989, snow was falling in Afghanistan. Winter storms and heavy blizzards wreathed the landscape in snow and frost. To get out of Afghanistan, the last remnants of the 40thArmy had to take a road called the Salang Highway. It was the only way to move that many troops out of Afghanistan, but there was one little problem. The Salang Highway ran right beneath the shadow of the Panjshir Valley. Right through Ahmed Shah Massoud’s home turf. As the final date of withdrawal set by the Geneva Accords drew closer, February 15th, 1989 – Massoud sent a message to the Russians:
“We have put up with war and your presence in our country for nearly ten years now. God willing, we will put up with you for a few more days. But if you begin military action against us, we will give you a worthy response.”
In other words, you can pass. You have my permission. Just go.
But even after all this time, all these years, the word of an Afghan, a Mujahideen, a ghost, wasn’t worth the paper it was written on to the Soviets. Urged on by their increasingly desperate and hysterical clients in the Kabul regime, the 40th Army bombarded Massoud’s territory, destroying dozens villages and killing hundreds of Afghans in the process. It was called Operation Typhoon, and it was the last gasp of the 40th Army’s stay in Afghanistan.
The Soviet soldiers were tired of war, tired of fighting, and could barely muster enough enthusiasm to lift their rifles against Massoud’s troops. As one young officer told his superior the day before the Operation:
‘Why does there have to be more bloodshed? … I will try to encourage the men in my battalion. But I tell you frankly, that if I am ordered to shoot, I will carry out the order, but I will hate myself.’
On January 23rd 1989, three days of artillery barrages and airstrikes leveled the foothills surrounding the Salang Highway, killing 600 of Massoud’s men and creating even more homeless Afghans. All it succeeded in doing was putting an ugly, bloody punctuation mark on an ultimately pointless war. As a Soviet military advisor named Sotskov said:
Almost ten years of the war were reflected as if in a mirror in three days and three nights: political cynicism and military cruelty, the absolute defenselessness of some and the pathological need to kill and destroy of others. Three awful days absorbed in themselves ten years of bloodletting.’
The 40th Army waited for the inevitable response…and nothing happened. Massoud did not retaliate with a major offensive. The Lion of Panjshir decided it was better to sheathe his claws. In truth, Massoud didn’t have much to say. If anything, he echoed what he’d told the Soviet when they’d first invaded:
“What a great pity that your forces invaded Afghanistan. The leaders of both countries made the greatest possible mistake. You could call it a crime against the Afghan and Soviet peoples.’
In other words. Just leave. Just get the hell out. Back in Part 2, we talked about some of the emotions the Soviet soldiers felt when they first saw Afghanistan. How beautiful they thought it was. As one remembered:
“The rivers there are incredibly blue. I never realized water could be such a heavenly color. Red poppies grow there like daisies do here, the mountainsides are like bonfires.”
But as the last Soviet troops drove out of Afghanistan, they saw with clear eyes what their occupation had done to the country. A journalist named David Gai, who was traveling with the retreating column, wrote this:
‘All along the way, was what remained of the roadside villages. Not one was undamaged: the walls were overturned, the houses were smashed, the trees were twisted. The fields were bare and uncultivated, the irrigation systems had been turned into marsh. And who had gained from the way everything had been reduced to useless collapse? How much effort would have to be put into restoring life to that dead space? The futility of those 3,200 (or however many it was) days of war made one’s eyes burn with shame … The only good thing was that the boys were going home.’
Historian Michael Dobbs elaborates:
They drove past roofless mud-brick houses, bullet-splattered walls, and fields of forlorn tree stumps that had once been luxuriant orchards. Rusting carcasses of bombed-out tanks and the twisted wreckage of army trucks littered the sides of the highway.
In many places, the pastoral beauty of Afghanistan had been transformed into…a wasteland. As Robert D Kaplan wrote:
This was not a military landscape of the past but of an eerie doomsday future. The twentieth century had come late to Afghanistan, but when it came, it came with a vengeance. The Soviets had sown so many mines, dropped so many bombs, and fired so many mortars and artillery shells over such a wide swath of territory that the effect of a nuclear strike had been achieved.
The last stop on this road trip of regret was the connective passage between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. It was called, ironically, the Friendship Bridge. A long, white, metal suspension bridge that passed over a river. Rodric Braithwaite describes the moment that the last men of the 40th Army crossed the border out of Afghanistan on February 15th, 1989:
There was no one from Moscow to greet the soldiers at the bridge – no one from the Party, no one from the government, no one from the Ministry of Defense, no one from the Kremlin. Years later their excuse was that it had been a dirty war, that to have made the journey to Termez would have been in effect to endorse a crime. It was an extraordinary omission – very bad politics, as well as very bad behavior. The soldiers never forgot or forgave the insult.
For the Soviets it was a sad, shameful anti-climax. But around the world, people were throwing parties. And one of the biggest ones was in the capital of Pakistan. As Steve Coll writes:
At the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, too, they threw a celebration. Bearden sent a cable to Langley: “WE WON.” He decided on his own last act of private theater. His third-floor office in the CIA station lay in the direct line of sight of the KGB office in the Soviet embassy across barren scrub land. Bearden had made a point of always leaving the light on in his office, and at diplomatic receptions he would joke with his KGB counterparts about how hard he was working to bring them down. That night he switched off the light.
Ahmed Shah Massoud wrote in his diary:
“According to the Russians and international journalists, today the last Russian soldiers left Afghanistan, defeated, after an occupation of nine years.”
Hundreds of miles away in Peshawar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar could barely contain his emotion. In a rare moment of candor years later, Hekmatyar talked about the joy that he felt on that day:
My tears flowed. Even as I was praying, I was still crying. For two days I kept crying. It was like I had achieved one of my biggest dreams unexpectedly. And before it was supposed to happen. I achieved my biggest dream. That the last occupier soldier had left the country. I did not expect that it would happen so soon. I was sure, I believed that the Soviets would be defeated in the country. But not this soon.”
As the Soviet troops returned home, the Russian public began to grapple with the legacy of the war that their men and boys had been fighting for almost a decade. A human rights activist named Andre Sakharov spoke for many Soviet citizens when he said:
“The war in Afghanistan was in itself criminal, a criminal adventure. This crime cost the lives of about a million Afghans, a war of destruction was waged against an entire people. . . . This is what lies on us as a terrible sin, a terrible reproach. We must cleanse ourselves of this shame that lies on our leadership.”
In that climate of reckoning and retribution, the Soviet soldiers returning home found very little sympathy. As one man remembered:
“I got on a bus and heard two women talking. “fine heroes they were! Murdering women and children over there. They’re sick And just think, they get invited to speak at schools!” “I jumped off at the next stop and stood there crying.”
One woman, a widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, just felt anger:
“I wanted to smash the screen the first time I heard someone on television say that Afghanistan was our shame. That was the day I buried my husband a second time.”
What had it all been for anyway? Some soldiers were understandably gutted that people were saying it had been a pointless war. As one said:
“I don’t want to hear any talk about a ‘political mistake’, ok? Give me my legs back if it was really a mistake.”
Others just wanted to move on:
“I don’t want to have children. I’m frightened of what they might say about me and the war when they grow up. Because I was there. It was a filthy war and we should admit that it was so.”
Another said: “Our children will grow up and deny their fathers ever fought in Afghanistan.”
In February 1989, the Soviet war in Afghanistan came to an end. Two years later, the Soviet Empire came to an end as well. The USSR had been a walking corpse for years, a political zombie shambling towards the 21stcentury. Try as they might, idealistic reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev were unable to adapt the Soviet Union to the future. The failing economy, the political corruption, and the ideological bankruptcy had all taken their toll. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
I can’t think of another time in history when such a gigantic empire came to an end so abruptly and so decisively. By New Year’s Eve 1989, all the Soviet satellites had broken away. In the year that followed, the various republics that formed the core country—the Soviet Union itself—began to declare their independence. When Russia declared its independence in 1991, the end had come: there was nothing left to gain independence from. […]
“The destruction of Afghanistan did not come at the hands of a mighty superpower at the arrogant height of its power: Afghanistan was destroyed by a dying dragon flailing its spiked tail in its final agony.”
To some people, like American journalist Robert D. Kaplan, the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan seemed like some kind of bad dream. One that most Americans didn’t seem to care about at all.
Away from Pakistan and Afghanistan, I could barely speak about the war. When I told people where I had been, their blank expressions indicated I might as well have been on the moon. Of the few who were truly interested in what I had to say, the retort that often greeted me was: “Really? Well then, how come we read so little about it in the newspapers?” The conversation would shift abruptly to another subject. It was nothing they needed to think or concern themselves about. It was happening so far away, to a people unrelated to them or to anybody they knew. Most listened to me only out of politeness, as though the stories I had brought back from central Asia were just that … stories, something I had only imagined.
In their time, the Soviets were some of the most underrated poets in the world, and one of them, a soldier named Igor Morozov, composed this piece about the end of the Soviet-Afghan War:
Down from the heights which once we commanded,
With burning feet we descend to the ground.
Bombarded with calumny, slander and lies,
We’re leaving, we’re leaving, we’re leaving. Farewell, you mountains, you know best
What men we were in that far land;
Now judge us fairly for what we did,
You chair-bound critics who stayed at home. Farewell, you mountains, you know best
The price we paid while we were here,
What foes unconquered still survive;
What friends we had to leave behind. Farewell, bright world, Afghanistan,
Perhaps we should forget you now.
But sadness grips us as we go:
We’re leaving, we’re leaving, we’re leaving.”
----- WRAP-UP -------
Well, folks, that’s it for today.
At the end of Part 2, I said that Part 3 would *probably* be the final episode in this series. And I’ve very glad I added that caveat. Because while the Soviets may be gone, this is not the end of our story. We have one last narrative to explore.
When the Soviets withdrew on February 15th, 1989, the world turned its back on Afghanistan. They stopped caring. They stopped paying attention. They lost interest. But the Soviets did not leave behind a nation at peace. They left behind a blasted, decimated moonscape of a country, one dominated by warlords and strongmen, freedom fighters and fundamentalists, jihadists and nationalists. As the world went back to business as usual, Afghanistan was tearing itself apart from the inside.
I tried to tell this story in three episodes, I really did, but to stop at this point, to turn our backs on Afghanistan the second the Soviets leave the stage, would just be too meta, too on-the-nose. We have to see this thing through. Now you would totally be forgiven for being like, look Zach this was fun, this was cool, but I’ve had enough of Afghanistan. I’m done. And I totally respect that, but on my end, I’ve gotta give the last leg of this story the care and attention it deserves. And after we wrap this limited series up, I’m going to get back to more self-contained, one-and-done topics. We’ll do something a little breezier and unexpected. You have my word on that.
But in the fourth and - I promise - final episode of this series, we’re going to be looking at the Mujahideen civil war. The climactic struggle between the factions that had been armed and funded by the American CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s ISI. Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar will return, and they will finally have their big showdown in Kabul.
But as the two dueling Mujahideen leaders fought for control of their country, a new enemy emerged from the religious schools on the Pakistani border. One that would pose an existential threat both Massoud and Hekmatyar. The orphans of the Soviet-Afghan War, the young boys who’d watched their villages burned, their parents murdered, and their livelihoods destroyed had been trained, armed and radicalized on the Pakistani frontier. They were too young to remember Afghanistan as it had been before the war, so they went about remaking it in a new image. The world would eventually come to know these orphans of the Soviet-Afghan War as the “students” or the “seekers”. The Taliban.
So with that, I will see you guys next time. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please consider leaving a nice review or a five-star rating on whatever platform you listen on. I know it’s kind of a drag, kind of inconvenient, but it really does help the show out a lot. And if you think these episodes are worth the price of a cup of coffee and you’d like to support the show with a small donation, head over to the show’s Patreon at patreon.com/conflictedhistorypodcast.
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So as always, thanks so much for spending your valuable time with me, and I hope you have an awesome day.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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